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The Battle Series

Dr. P. Carl

Corey Ruzicano is collecting stories on how artists and humans pick their battles. The Battle Series seeks to answer the question: how do you know what's worth standing up for, and once you've figured that out, how do you do it? How do you do the hard work of growing up? 

P.carl with dogs on a couch
P. Carl. Photo courtesy of P.Carl. 

Probably there aren’t enough words in any language to talk about my enduring awe of P. Carl.

His striking and consistent courage, his commitment to real and radical integrity, and his daily efforts large and small to improve the world around him make him the person I want to go to with every doubt and dream and question. This question, in particular.

Carl and his vision changed my life. With the perspective he gave me came a way to more fully love and ask questions of the world. He opened the door to a sudden, soaring clarity, a vocabulary in which I came of age. He reminded me that stories could be both of beauty and of use, that they belonged to everyone and everyone belonged to them and that there are infinite ways to belong.

I always wonder if the day will come where I outgrow my complete and utter wonderment with Carl. But I haven’t yet. And I doubt I ever will.

The work of life is to make the world a little bit better. And I’ve chosen to do that through making art.—P. Carl

Corey Ruzicano: It feels like in this time, but probably in all times, there are so many battles to pick. Once you’ve picked one, what do you do? I’ve been trying to ask this question of anybody and everybody I can, because I think part of it is just a question of growing up. But everyone has to become. So what I’m interested in is how that story has taken shape for artists and art makers and art facilitators. Has there been a time when you actively were picking a battle, or one that picked you? What was that experience and how did it change your relationship to what you were doing or making or saying?

P. Carl: It’s a good question. I feel like I’ve picked a lot of battles over time. I won’t do an autobiography here, but for me, it starts in a couple of different places. One is, I’ve always been interested in this question of access and democratizing art, so I always feel like I’ve been picking a battle for justice in the arts, whatever that means. The word more commonly used now is equity, but I think for me it’s always been about social justice. It started with that framework. We create the circumstances where everybody has access to the power of art in their lives. And I don’t even mean social justice in terms of the art being necessarily about a social issue. I associate art with things like beauty. It’s about people having access to a higher quality of life and a better chance at well-being. That’s what the arts have done for me, so I feel like everyone should have that. Coming from a family of very modest means, I’ve always felt that way.

And I guess the other battle that I’ve picked pretty overtly is a battle around questions of inclusivity. I haven’t always identified as a transgender person, but I’ve always felt othered in a world being a kind of short, always queer in some capacity—however I articulated that—person in a field that is often filled with people who have had access to means and support. Not having economic access for most of my life, being queer have shaped me to be a person who picks issues around who gets to say what, when. Creating space for people to be able to tell their stories, and stories that matter to our cultures and communities, is something that I’ve insisted on most of my life, and I feel like I’ve always been working from a why: why does it matter and who is it for?

People might say, “He’s always picking battles.” But I don’t even feel like they’re battles—that’s the work, for me. The work of life is to make the world a little bit better. And I’ve chosen to do that through making art.

Corey: I wonder if that’s changed how you feel about community in general and your place in your community.

Being a person who’s willing to take on battles...sometimes it’s a little exhausting. Sometimes I think, “Let me just make plays.” But on the other hand, the work of HowlRound and ArtsEmerson are rooted in the work of democratization and inclusivity and the idea that theatre belongs to everyone and investigating how it matters to the communities in which we live and work...that is the work. The relationships that I’ve built over time with so many different people coming from so many different vantage points have made my life better. Those have been all battles worth picking.

I look at the work of HowlRound and I think oh my God that I had any hand in that—and there are many hands in it—but that I had any hand in helping to support all of us finding our voice on a public platform. There was a lot of criticism of HowlRound early on, that it was taking on the field in critical ways. Someone said, “Why are you trying to throw stones inside your own glass house?” and I thought, “Because that’s our work.” That’s the work of making the theatre a place for everybody. Now it feels like people are seeing the power of finding their voice. In my career, the conversation around who gets to participate, whose stories get told, who gets to be represented, and how art engages life has advanced so far. And we have so far to go, of course, but it feels like an exciting conversation and I’m just happy to be in it.

Corey: I listened to an episode of This American Life recently of a comedian in Oakland, California, who had been very publicly discriminated against for being African American, and so in trying to process that he said that for himself, he just wanted to forget about it. He didn’t want to pick that as a battle, but that he has two little girls and he has to decide what to teach them. So they had an East Bay Area town hall meeting of sorts—and I should say that this is where I’m from—so I’m particularly interested in a place that publicly, historically champions the liberal in a way that sometimes I think the theatre community claims to, being just as in need of these kinds of conversations. And this piece culminated in his asking the advice of another parent in the community one moment of which he asks: what do you think, is it better to teach my girls what these terrible things are and what they mean, or should I just let it go? And after a long pause, the other father says, I don’t think I’ve ever let anything go. I’ve been thinking about that, because someone said to me not long after how we’ve moved as a culture from let it be to let it go in our pop anthems as well as in our attitude. I have long lamented this idea of it’s cool not to care about things that feels like a big trap especially my age group, and if anything, that’s the battle I’ve picked. I just know I’m never going to be cool and I’m never not going to care about things.

To be an artist in a world that doesn’t really embrace the arts or view the arts as essential or see the arts as requiring the same kind of economic compensation as other professions is such a vulnerable place to be. So many artists live in the margins, and when I think of all the theatre artists who have paved the way for other artists, people who have done it in a much grander way than certainly I will ever do individually, I recognize that I’m in a very privileged position, to be working in a slightly larger institution—I have a salary, I have health insurance—so it has to be my responsibility, and certainly as an educator at a college, I have to be completely responsible to paving the way for the next generation. Like that father on This American Life—what other choice do we have but to pave the way for the next generation? That’s not always going to be comfortable work. You talk about your generation not wanting to put themselves in the middle of things, I think as a culture, we’ve become less and less willing to be uncomfortable and I think discomfort is actually one of the things I’m trying to embrace. One of the things about fully identifying as transgender in the theatre…part of me has not wanted to do that because it requires so much energy. It attracts a level of attention to myself that makes me uncomfortable, but on the other hand, I see all these young people who are sorting out gender identity in really courageous ways and I have to be courageous myself to create space for those people who are coming up behind me. I feel like I’m just trying to hold space at the table for them: for the six-year-old son of my wife’s cousin who wants to go to opera camp and dresses as Elsa in Frozen for Halloween, for the student who doesn’t speak all semester in class and writes such a beautiful and moving final paper on what it means to be seen, for the trans artists seeing cis actors cast in trans parts…it requires all of us to have some courage: the courage of our convictions and our sense of who we are in the world. I think that’s imperative as someone that’s working in the arts but especially as someone in the arts in a college setting. That’s the work. We’re making a path and we’re trying to make room on that path for other people.

Someone said to me how we’ve moved as a culture from let it be to let it go in our pop anthems as well as in our attitude. I have long lamented this idea of it’s cool not to care about things that feels like a big trap especially my age group, and if anything, that’s the battle I’ve picked. I just know I’m never going to be cool and I’m never not going to care about things.—Corey Ruzicano

Corey: Those sound like really good tools or motivators. Do you have any other strategies or tools that have come up in concrete ways that you’ve carried out or thought about over the years?

One, I think everyone should have a personal values or ethics statement; a list of what you value personally, what’s your why. To have that concretely down on paper, concretely articulated, and just to know that you’re going to have moments when you’re further from your why and moments when you’re closer to it, and times when you look down and think oh my god I’m not anywhere near it and what does that mean? Two, to have people in your life that you’re checking in with. Sometimes you’ll avoid the person that you know isn’t going to tell you exactly what you want to hear, but having people in your life that are willing to tell you the things you don’t want to hear or will guide you in a certain way that may not be what feels comfortable is an essential tool. Three, is exactly what I think you’re doing with this series, which is being in a constant state of not just learning but figuring out how to make the learning cohere in a way that you share it with others. There’s something about the time it takes to make the learning cohesive that is a critical piece of evolving as an individual. Part of that cohesion is finding ways to share the learning: writing of any kind, or if writing isn’t your tool, a podcast or artwork or whatever. How do you share your own learning? How do you coalesce your understanding? I think those are things that I think about. And what works for me is that I indulge my imagination all the time. I think indulging your imagination is another way of holding onto what matters to you. I’m the kind of person that loves novels; I’m a lover of long, indulging novels. I always have one that I’m reading, I’m always in some Netflix series that engages me, or working on some theatre project. I’m always indulging my imagination—it’s a way of grounding my sense of who I am in the world by holding onto the stories that matter to me.

Corey: It strikes me too that those things are centering but they’re not change-resistant. That question has been coming up a lot in my peer base, of the brittleness of fear and how it can make it very hard to move forward or share with others. In an industry that’s very quick to tell you you’re not enough, you’ll never have enough, you’ll never be enough, it’s very easy to hold your cards close to your vest. What’s  kept me wanting to be in this world is the idea of sharing and being a part of a community and saying things out loud, so I think that too has been an enormous shift for me, trying to ground myself in the thought that the real resources only increase upon being shared.

I think that’s exactly right. And with community, with sharing, I always say to young theatre practitioners, you should get a sense of yourself, and of living. And I don’t mean to be cliché or trite, but it’s about finding the things that fill you up, that give you a strong sense of your self. You want to keep building your sense of the core of who you are in a way that is about a constant sense of possibility and evolution, because there’s a lot of ambition in this career. And ambition has its place, you have to have some ambition or you’ll never make it as an artist, right? You have to have something you’re hungry for, but you also have to keep that ambition in some kind of check with your core value statement. Developing as a person is about having experiences. I know that you’re in New York and I say this because I love you, but I always say, “Oh, don’t just go to New York. Go travel.”

Corey: I know, I know, I got lost from my path of getting lost.

I’m not at all suggesting that there’s any right path, it’s just me saying: keep figuring out what kind of person you want to be. What centers you? Are you the kind of person that likes to read or hike or run? We know you like to make theatre, but what kind of person do you want to be in the world? Are you a person that wants to be connected to certain communities? Figure out the ways that you want to find yourself and then make the space for that.

For me, I’m a big routine kind of person and one of my core values is walking. I love to walk. Walking is the most centering thing—my best thoughts come from walking. Even incorporating an hour each day or two of just walking is one of the ways that I stay in touch with myself. There will be periods where I don’t get that in and I’ll be totally out of sync and I’ll feel it. So just figure out what your routines are; what the things are that you have to do to be who you are.

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Thoughts from the curator

A collection of interviews on how students and humans pick their battles.

The Battle Series 


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Thank you both. As usual, anything I've read here on HowlRound from P. Carl is thought provoking nourishment. "Finding out what kind of person you want to be in the world," says it all.

I also find that my best ideas (and/or snips of dialog a character in a story I'm working onspeaks to me) often come while I'm walking. Great piece!

Awesome stuff.
Judith used to say something similar about figuring out what you're trying to say before you go out there and make everyone listen to you. I think it matches up with the 'why' that you speak to.
I think a lot of people rush around without it...and I think it actually does a fair bit of damage to the arts community, and fuels a bit of the opening statement you make, which makes us all the more vulnerable.

I love this and am trying to soak up its wisdom. Living in discomfort. Indulging the imagination. Don't just go to NY, go travel. And the question at its heart-- which battles to choose! Note to self: keep and reread.